We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
Although actor/screenwriter Mike White writes with hilarious wit for his comrade in comedy Jack Black--in films such as School of Rock and Orange County--he is also becoming a master at the slice-of-life dramedy. With The Good Girl he expertly gave us a bored married woman stuck in a nowhere job trying to capture a little happiness. Now with Year of the Dog he hands us the ultimate sad sack Peggy (Molly Shannon) who is practically inseparable from her beagle Pencil. Life is uncomplicated and safe with her beloved pet an excuse she uses to great effect in order to avoid human contact as much as possible. But Peggy's world comes crashing down when Pencil meets a mysterious demise in the neighbor's yard. Shattered Peggy isn’t sure where to turn to fill the void. Friends family and co-workers try to distract her but in the end she emerges from her loss with a newfound sense of what will make her happy in the world. Molly Shannon huh? The SNL alum has generally been relegated to kooky sidekick roles after her disastrous (but somewhat guilty pleasure-ish) starring vehicle Superstar. But who knew she had the chops to pull something like this off. She’s perfect as the lonely downcast Peggy who has completely resigned herself to living with her dog as her only companion. Shannon gets to show off her wacky side in certain moments--like when she “adopts” about 20 dogs and lets them run all over her house--but the actress plays the majority of her role with restraint and great subtlety. Also quite good is Peter Sarsgaard as a fellow dog lover who starts off as a potential love interest for Peggy but ends up disappointing her like all the other humans in her life. His character’s unassumingly sweet and charming personality still wins you over even when he’s being a jerk to Peggy. Someone needs to give him an Oscar. In supporting roles there’s John C. Reilly as a blowhard and hunting enthusiast who lives next door to Peggy (and could be the reason Pencil died in the first place); Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern as Peggy’s concerned but rather uptight brother and sister-in-law; and finally Regina King as Peggy’s saucy workmate just trying to give her friend a little excitement. Kudos all around. Mike White also tries his hand at wielding the camera for the first time with Year of the Dog--and much like his minimalist writing style he keeps the action fairly simple and focused. He seems to love the one-on-one scenes with his characters sitting across from each other--either in the living room at a lunch table or a desk--oftentimes with filled with long uncomfortable (or sometimes very comfortable) silences. Static yes but White obviously realizes his movies are more about what’s being said (or not being said) than the visuals. He also shows a real talent in guiding his actors to pitch-perfect performances--a very important part of being a good director. Of course not a lot happens in Year of the Dog which can be a drawback to indie movies of this ilk. It could be considered a giant bore-fest if you can’t connect with people who love their pets way too much. But if you can settle in and really listen to White’s quirky but ultimately realistic view on life as its dealt out you’ll really enjoy this stellar effort from the burgeoning filmmaking talent.